What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

September 10, 2006

Oxford Labour - 'Don't let residents near planning'

One of the issues which continues to divide the two main parties on Oxford City Council is where planning applications should be decided.

The Lib Dems have always said that such decisions are best taken in open meetings in local area committees by councillors who represent the community and understand its issues. Labour, by contrast, appears increasingly keen to re-centralise planning decision-making, ensuring local residents and councillors are kept as far out of the way as possible.

A recent meeting of the Labour-dominated South-East Area Committee decided it was bored with planning, and preferred instead to wash its hands of it. This strikes me as an odd way of sticking up for your residents.

For sure, planning is a sometimes technical, always quasi-judicial process. It takes some getting used to the terms and practices employed. But it is also one of the few areas of Council responsibility in which the public and councillors can see decisions made which will immediately affect local people's everyday lives.

If Labour were truthful, they would admit the real reason for wanting to take planning decision-making away from the area committees - that planning applications are often controversial, and councillors sometimes have no choice (if they choose to act responsibly) but to approve applications which will prove unpopular. To be blunt, it can be a vote loser.

If Labour were truthful, they would admit what their preferred solution really is - planning applications decided by a Town Hall committee (in front of as few members of the public as can turn up to a daytime meeting), with ward councillors able publicly to grandstand about how despicable an application is in the sure and certain knowledge that they need take no responsibility for whatever is decided.

In short, Labour would prefer not to represent their residents if it's going to be too hard.

And yet planning is an area where a councillor can really make a difference if they're prepared to put in the graft.

When a resident approaches me about a planning application, I'm careful to play it straight down the line. I tell them from the start that I will not make any promises about which way I'll vote, as to do so would compromise my neutrality and disqualify me from determining the application.

But what I will promise to do is give them as much advice as they need to be able to put their point across in their letters of objection to (or, very occasionally, support of) an application, and to make an effective representation at the area committee. I will tell them what planning policies in the Local Plan councillors will be looking at, and what arguments they are likely to hear put by the applicants.

In effect, my job is to try and level the playing field - to ensure that my residents are as well-armed with the information they will need to represent themselves as the developers with their expensive planning consultants will be. To do anything less would be to sell my residents short.

And when an application is heard by the area committee, again councillors are not powerless. One of the first things I advise my residents to do is to consider what conditions they would like to see the Council impose should the application be approved - what changes might make it a little more bearable.

For example, one application in my ward was for an extension and subdivision of a family house to provide two flats. In some ways, a small issue - but one which was of real concern to the residents of the street.

Although there were no planning grounds on which to reject it, there were a couple of conditions which the area committee could impose - for example, a garden maintenance plan, so that the landlord will have to take responsibility for looking after the gardens. We imposed the condition because we've seen what has happened throughout the North-East of Oxford when absentee landlords all too often have little regard for the state of their properties - the gardens become wildernesses, and the area looks uncared for.

Of course, I could take the easy way out. I could simply sympathise with residents, say how dreadful such-and-such developers are, and stick my hand up to vote against an unpopular application. But I know that if I did so without good cause, such a decision would be over-turned on appeal by a Planning Inspector, probably with costs awarded against the Council.

Not only would I have cost my residents more on their Council Tax, but I would have lost the chance of getting imposed some conditions which might make their lives that little bit better.

So, yes, planning is a quagmire, a minefield and a tight-rope. Which is why it's all the more important that councillors fully understand what's involved so that they can represent their residents to the best of their abilities.

Take planning decision-making away from the areas affected and local councillors' lives will be made a lot easier. It's our residents who will be short-changed.

6 comments:

Jock Coats said...

Has something new happened? I wrote recently in response to something on Antonia's blog about pallning, which was the first time I had seen the excuse that it made life difficult representing their constituents as the reason for wanting to centralise. It's not a valid argument IMO. Council is the Panning Authority. If they centralised it, controversial applications would have to go to full council again and their "fettered discretion" would still cause them problems.

Anyway, the answer is not to complain about planning, but about the code of conduct imposed by their glorious leaders in Westminster that assumes that councillors are such pillocks that they cannot behave responsibly without the standards prefect breathing down their necks.

This goes on and on - I seem to recall one of the very first articles on your site in about 2002 was about this!

Jock Coats said...

Oh yeah - and to repeat my long standing complaint while I've got the chance - let the public speak till they're bored/exhausted instead of this "five minutes each" stuff. The legal advice on that is just plain wrong according to other councils.

Stephen Tall said...

The new thing is the recommendation of the last South East Area Committee: "To recommend that Planning is no longer considered at Area Committees."

In any case there's nothing to stop a councillor taking a position on a planning application if they want to. I've done it once in the past when I thought I could do more good campaigning alongside residents.

Wanting power without responsibility is one thing. Labour seem quite happy to opt for impotence without responsibility.

Dan said...

Hi Stephen,

Hope you are well.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the councils which have beacon status for community involvement handle planning in the way that Oxford City Council does - might be worth taking a look at the way that they handle this sort of situation. From what I've seen, they make local forums much less formal and more about what local people want to raise, rather than running them as mini council meetings with all the council's formal structures.

North East Area Committee is different from all the others because it has a separate planning meeting - and from my experience councillors in the North East area (of all parties) are much happier with the planning arrangements than councillors (of all parties) elsewhere in the city.

It is very hard to have a meeting which is intended at one and the same time as a forum to discuss how to improve a local area and particular local services and as a quasi-judicial meeting to hear planning applications.

It means that the meetings often end up being very long, with a lot of the business about an application in a particular street, which is off putting and exclusive. Having separate planning meetings covering a larger area of the city, on the model of the North East, is much more sensible.

Take care

Dan xxx

Stephen Tall said...

Dan - gone, but not forgetting! Good to hear from you.

The North-East has always been a model area committee of course. (I proposed the amendment at Council which enlarged it; Labour wanted it split in two.)

The exact structure isn't what I get hung up about. But it's crucial that local councillors continue to have responsibility for planning.

Dan said...

As you'll know if you've been down to chat to the locals in my old ward at all recently, I had no problem at all with deciding planning applications locally. But I think we could probably agree that the current system of area committees isn't a model of community involvement.

It's not up to me, but I've have thought 2-3 local planning committees meeting in the evening at a venue accessible and convenient for local residents (3 committees would each have roughly the amount of business that the North East does at the moment) and abolition of the SDCC would keep planning local and accountable, and also help get people along to area committees who aren't interested in planning but who are interested in local services and suggesting improvements to their area.

I still think it is cruel and unusual punishment to require all councillors to make planning decisions, and there are genuine difficulties in terms of being perceived to be unbiased when advising residents on how to prepare their case and then sitting in judgement on that same case (I got referred to the standards board by a developer when I mentioned at a meeting that I had been to view the site of an application after being contacted by the neighbour - though the case was obviously thrown out). The choice doesn't need to be status quo vs old system (which I am quite happy to concede was even more ghastly).

And as I am free and don't have to take any planning decisions ever again, that is my last word on this subject :)

Take care

Dan xxx